NATO-Russia Council meets in Brussels but fails to bridge divide over INF Treaty

4 November 2018

The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) met in Brussels on the 31 October 2018, the first such meeting since May. Ambassadors from the 29 NATO member states, plus Russia, discussed several topics, including the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan, and their respective large-scale military exercises—NATO briefed on the ongoing exercise Trident Juncture 2018, and Russia provided a briefing on exercise Vostok 2018.

Views were also shared on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Earlier in October, US President Donald Trump declared his intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty, citing alleged Russian violations since 2014 and concern that China is not covered by its ban on ground-launched short- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia denies violating the treaty and alleges that some elements of the US missile defence system in Europe violate the agreement —something denied by Washington.

In a statement after the NRC meeting, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said:

We all agree that the INF Treaty has been crucial to Euro-Atlantic security. For over five years, the United States has pursued diplomatic and technical avenues with Russia aimed at preserving the INF Treaty. The United States is in compliance with its obligations under the INF Treaty and continues to provide substantial transparency on its programmes. No arms control arrangement can be effective if it is only respected by one side. Allies have repeatedly expressed serious concerns about the new Russian missile system, known as the 9M729 or SSC-8. NATO has urged Russia repeatedly to address these concerns in a substantial and transparent way, and to actively engage in a constructive dialogue with the United States. We regret that Russia has not heeded our calls. This reinforces our assessment that the missile system 9M729 poses a serious risk to the strategic stability of the Euro-Atlantic area. Allies urge Russia again to address these substantial concerns in a transparent manner and to ensure full compliance with the INF Treaty without delay. While we stand ready to continue dialogue on this issue with Russia, as an Alliance we are also committed to take effective measures to continue to ensure the safety and security of all Allies.

Several European leaders, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin, have expressed concerns that any collapse of the INF treaty could lead to a new, destabilizing arms race.

NATO suspended practical cooperation with Moscow in 2014 due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and what the alliance sees as its ongoing destabilisation of eastern Ukraine. At the same time, channels for political dialogue have remained open, and the NRC is an important forum. NATO and Russia also maintain open military-to-military lines of communication, including exchanges between the Supreme Allied Commander Europe or Chairman of the Military Committee, and the Russian Chief of the General Staff.

However, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, speaking on the sidelines of the Core Group Meeting of the Munich Security Conference in Minsk, said that NATO’s policy of deterrence towards Russia, hampers normal cooperation between the parties, including within the NRC.

Both sides military exercises have steadily grown in size in recent years as an atmosphere of stand-off between Russia and the West has grown. Russia’s 2018 edition of Vostok mobilized 300,000 troops and included joint exercises with the Chinese army - the biggest such drills since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.

NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise, which will run until 7 November, stretches from the North Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic Sea and involves around 50,000 soldiers, 10,000 vehicles, 250 aircraft, and ships from all 29 NATO allies, plus partners Finland and Sweden.